Located in Hokkaido, northern Japan, Niseko is a popular ski spot during the winter months. Come summer, Niseko becomes a fantastic place for cycling and hiking. Decorated with beautiful mountains and valleys, the mountainous terrain is a dream come true for all cyclist. Unknown to many though, Niseko is home to the prestigious Niseko Classic race, which is one of the qualifying race for UCI Gran Fondo World Championship happening in Italy.
This Japan summer, Velo Travel took full opportunity of the cool weather and hosted its first overseas adventure. A 7 days trip will take the riders through the surrounding the mountains and lakes, passing through neighboring towns and cruising along the coastline. With everyone participating in the Niseko Classic, it will be everyone's first time experiencing a UCI level race.
10 hours passed and it was Friday, at 1 pm. Everyone disembarked from the plane and made their way through the custom and baggage claim. Hiro-san, our friendly Japanese guide was there to greet us all. With a quick introduction and head accounted for, we boarded the coach and headed off for Niseko.
A 3-hour journey separates the airport and the hotel. Home for the trip was Always Niseko, a hotel started by a fellow Singaporean cyclist. The cool hotel is tailor-made for the cyclist. Well equipped with bike rack for storage and basic bike tools, fellow cyclists can stay there with a peace of mind.
Less than an hour, all the bikes were racked up and ready. With the bike aside, everyone slowly settles into their rooms and prepare themselves for dinner at the neighboring Yamada town.
Located about 15 minutes walk down the road from the hotel, the town is the epicenter for tourists during the winter month. The small town is well equipped with restaurants, convenient stores, and other hotels. There is even a bicycle store.
The Initiation Ride
The first ride in Niseko started cold and gloomy. Nicely situated within the hotel, Element Cafe provided the breakfast before the maiden ride. Riders gathered themselves together at the hotel lobby after the sumptuous breakfast.
13-degree Celsius cold wind greeted the riders on the 56km journey towards Makkari town and back. The mountainous terrain was made obvious with stretches of rolling hills paving the way towards Makkari Town, reminisce that of Singapore’s Mandai Road.
Journey back was made more pleasant as sunlight starts to peer through the clouds and warm the day up. We ended the ride with the collection of the Niseko Classic race pack.
The collection point was situated on the top of a hill in Yamada Town, halfway up Mount Annupuri. The climb’s 9% average gradient makes our Mount Faber look like a walk in the park. It was a good glimpse of what is to come for the following day.
The Race Is Over
The 140km race flagged off at 635am sharp with the riders rolling through a 6km neutral zone. The beginning proved to be the toughest as 2 big climbs paved the first 46km. The first climb instantly breaks the whole peloton, scattering cyclist all over the mountainside.
A fast 6km descent awaits at the end of the first 8km climb. Smooth tarmac paired with the gentle bend on the descent see some brave riders hitting speed well above 80kmh. One of our fellow riders manages to hit 87kmh! Thereafter, a series of short climbs paved the way to the start of the biggest climb of the race.
The 35km point marks the start of the King Of Mountain segment of the race. The 12km journey takes the rider up towards the KOM point at Shinsen-Numa marsh. At 5% average gradient and 580m elevation gain, it's the make it or break it point for all the competitors. Having only 2 hours to reach the KOM point, it was the first cut off point for the UCI race.
Being a Gran Fondo World championship qualifier, it was hardly a walk in the park. With elevation equivalent that of 8 Mt Fabers, only a handful of our riders managed to ride up the mountain and reach the Shinsen-Numa marsh. Only 2 riders managed to make it past the cut off time. The rest were picked up by the sag wagon at Shinsen-Numa marsh and ferried back to the finish line.
The strong few who made pass the first cut off point enjoyed a long 20km descent down to Hinode district, towards the Shiribetsu River. It was all flat riding along the Shiribetsu River which leads them towards the coastal town of Minatomachi. Thereafter, they roll back inland along the other side of the Shiribetsu River.
A 10km climb up towards Hinode district welcomes riders back into the mountains. The 4% average gradient climb is part of the KOM segment for the shorter 70km race. Finishing off the race was a series of climbs with the Yamada Town climb topping things off.
The Recovery Ride
Still beaten by yesterday’s torturous climb, 3rd day of riding was a 2 part event. A relatively easy 53km recovery ride brings the riders around Mount Yotei. Post ride, riders paid a visit to neighboring town Otaru for some much-needed recovery munch.
A 35km journey brings everyone to the east side of Mount Yotei. Sitting there is Kyogoku town, home of the beautiful Fukidashi park. Natural spring water flows down the mountainside and through Fukidashi park. Visitors can enjoy the tasty spring water at their own pleasure.
What seems like it could possible glitch on your strava is a very straight 8km road that span across 3 towns. Situated about 4km out from Fukidashi park and no traffic light to slow down for, all riders went full gas, finishing whatever that is left of their legs.
The easy ride ended just before noon, leaving the whole afternoon for the visit to Otaru. The 90 minutes coach ride cuts through the valley of Mount Tengu and Daikokuyama, along the beautiful Yoichi river. Passing by Yoichi and Oshoro Bay before reaching Otaru town.
The small harbor city house many colonial buildings and as well as the beautiful Otaru Canal. At the heart of Otaru sits Sakaimachi Dori. Lined with many beautifully built western styled buildings from the 1900s, the street houses a huge variety of shops and restaurants.
The 5th day in Niseko was designated for an epic ride towards Lake Toya, around it and back. The 130km hilly journey will fetch the riders a total of 1400m in elevation gain. However, with remnants of rain from last night and a possible rain forecasted during the ride, our Japanese guide advised us to cancel the ride for safety reasons.
Under the advice of our guide, the ride was eventually canceled and replaced with a road trip down to Lake Toya. Japanese weather forecast proved to be accurate with showers drifting in and out through the day.
The riders took a bus ride through the planned cycling route towards Toyakoonsen town, which is located at the southern tip of Lake Toya. Sitting at the foot of an active volcano, the town felt the full wrath when Mount Usu erupted back in 2000. Remnants of destroyed buildings were still present to warn visitors about the power of mother nature.
Post lunch, a short bus ride brings the group up towards another active volcano, Mount Showa Shinzan. Located at the top is the Showa Shinzan Bear Ranch and a cable car station that bring visitors up to the rim of Mount Usu. The weather wasn't on our side as rain clouds hovered over the mountaintop, covering up the beautiful view of Mount Usu.
Finishing off the road trip was an onsen bath back at Toyokoonsen town. The hot spring sits along the coast of Lake Toya and overlooks the beautiful Nakajima Island. The hot spring proves to be the perfect way to relax on the cold rainy day.
The Epic Ride
Perfect would have been an understatement to describe our last day of riding in Niseko. The weather was great, food was excellent and the scenery was beautiful. It was a bittersweet everyone roll into the 120km journey out to the coastline and back up into the mountains.
The sun was out, lighting up the beautiful mountains and coastline. Basking the full glory of the beautiful day, we made way towards the small fishing town of Suttsu. Lunch was at Suttsu Oyster Village that sits along the coastal road leading towards Suttsu. The obscure wooden hut serves up sumptuous seafood that was freshly caught off the sea in front of the restaurant.
With the stomach filled and cravings satisfied, the day continues with a ride up north along the coast towards the town of Iwanai.
It was an exciting yet daunting experience, we have to ride through several long tunnels that span along the coast. Heavy vehicles sped pass us as we try to negotiate through the dark tunnel. Each tunnel was a few kilometers long and the vehicles were loud in the enclosed tunnel.
A quick refuel at Iwanai town prepares everyone for the final leg of the day. With no time cut to rush for, everyone rode with ease and took their time riding up the Mount Waisuhorun, soaking up its full beauty. After 20km of climbing later, everyone took a quick break at a beautiful vantage point which overlooks Mount Yotei.
With the beautiful Mount Yotei as a backdrop, everyone gathered for a well-deserved group photo, marking the finale of the trip.
Reality starts to set in as everyone makes the long descent back to the hotel. Sun was already setting as we reached the hotel. Reluctancy filled the air as everyone starts to pack their bicycle.
Element Cafe lightens the mood up with a sumptuous spread of Japanese delicacies for dinner.
Jonathan Chua, the man behind Velo Travel, took the opportunity to officiate Velo Travel. A very special leather wristband marks the new beginning. Going on a Velo Travel adventure earns each a special stamp on their wristband, a reminder of the fun time and epic adventures.
A week later, the same journey that brought us to Niseko has brought everyone back to Chitose Airport. With a light bow and a wave, we gave our thanks and said goodbyes to our Japanese guide.
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